I have long recognized and admired the philosophical acuity of W. S. Gilbert. His insight from The Gondoliers that “if everybody’s somebody, no-one’s anybody,” for example, is a crisp logical insight that many famous metaphysicians would have done well to take on board.
I had never seen a production of Utopia, Limited, Or the Flowers of Progress, Gilbert’s late contribution to political philosophy and economics, until yesterday afternoon, when I caught the storied Blue Hill Troupe’s staging at the Museo del Barrio in New York. Utopia is the second to last collaboration between Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan for Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Theatre. Written in 1893, it is by far the longest of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. Partly because of its length, and partly because the original contains several unresolved subplots and story lines on which the sign “Dead End” might have been posted, the piece is seldom performed. (I’d never even heard of its being performed.) But part of the mission of the Blue Hill Troupe, a high-octane, mostly amateur company whose delightful semi-annual productions benefit charity, is to perform all of the G&S operettas. Last year, they produced a splendid HMS Pinafore for their Spring performance. This year they tackled Utopia, Limited, and the result was thoroughly riveting. The editorial geniuses at the Troupe, Cornelia Iredell and Joanne Lessner, transformed a three-plus-hour behemoth into a svelte beauty that clocked in at just over two hours, with intermission.
Utopia, Limited tells the story of Utopia, a tiny South Seas island, whose dizzy King Paramount (played with signal ebullience by Alan Abrams) has a protracted fit of Anglophilia when his daughter, the luscious Princess Zara (Sheena Ramirez), returns fresh from a stint at Girton College, Cambridge, bringing the gospel of English mores and manners — along with a clutch of English bureaucrats and a knock-out red dress — to transform their quiet island life into a commercial powerhouse.
I won’t detain you with more particulars of the story, except to note that the performances were universally captivating. Captain Fitzbattleaxe (Richard Miller) was dashing as the male love interest and aced what must be one of the most difficult parts in all Gilbert & Sullivandom: deliberately, comically singing off key because he is agitato with passion for Princess Zara. I’d say that David Pasteelnick and William Remmers stole the show as the king’s scheming “wise men,” except that other performers, including the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus, regularly stole it back.
It is often, and correctly, observed that Utopia, Limited, is a satire. But those who see Gilbert’s barbs aimed chiefly at the British Empire and its pretensions of bringing advanced culture to primitive peoples miss what I think is his main target. Gilbert was happy to guy anything he thought ridiculous, and no doubt there were aspects of the Empire that called out for ridicule. But his chief target in Utopia, Limited, was more commercial or economic than imperial. Gilbert took particular aim at the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1862, which provided that a shareholder’s liability was limited to his investment. Invest 18 pence, lose 18 million pounds, and you’re only out the 18 pence.
Some seven men form an Association,
(If possible, all Peers and Baronets)
They start off with a public declaration
To what extent they mean to pay their debts.
That’s called their Capital: if they are wary
They will not quote it at a sum immense.
The figure’s immaterial it may vary
From eighteen million down to eighteen pence.
I should put it rather low;
The good sense of doing so
Will be evident at once to any debtor.
When it’s left to you to say
What amount you mean to pay,
Why, the lower you can put it at, the better.
They then proceed to trade with all who’ll trust ‘em,
Quite irrespective of their capital
(It’s shady, but it’s sanctified by custom);
Bank, Railway, Loan, or Panama Canal.
You can’t embark on trading too tremendous
It’s strictly fair, and based on common sense
If you succeed, your profits are stupendous
And if you fail, pop goes your eighteen pence.
Make the money-spinner spin !
For you only stand to win,
And you’ll never with dishonesty be twitted.
For nobody can know,
To a million or so,
To what extent your capital’s committed.
If you come to grief, and creditors are craving,
(For nothing that is planned by mortal head
Is certain in this Vale of Sorrow saving
That one’s Liability is Limited),
Do you suppose that signifies perdition?
If so you’re but a monetary dunce
You merely file a Winding-Up Petition,
And start another Company at once !
Though a Rothschild you may be
In your own capacity,
As a Company you’ve come to utter sorrow
But the Liquidators say,
“Never mind you needn’t pay,”
So you start another company to-morrow!